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High and dry

A new documentary sheds light on our looming water crisis

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Jim Thebaut’s new documentary takes on the water crisis in the American Southwest, in particular on the oft-overlooked Indian reservations.

As if the high price of oil weren’t enough, next week PBS is airing a documentary on that other critical natural resource, water, and it focuses on the most water-starved region in America: ours.

Called The American Southwest: Are We Running Dry?, the new documentary by Jim Thebaut is a companion piece to an earlier film he made, Running Dry, which deals with what he calls the global water crisis. (At present some 1.2 billion people around the world don’t have access to clean drinking water.)

Thebaut, a landscape architect turned social activist and filmmaker, addressed the United Nations about water issues in July. Last week he spoke to the Weekly. “I finally came to the realization that the American public really looks at these issues in kind of an abstract sense,” he says. “That’s the way Americans perceive the rest of the world.” (Of course, that may be how Americans perceive almost any place that’s not their own backyard.) Thebaut thought a film about water use in the U.S. would open eyes. “I’m gonna bring this crisis right to the front steps of the American public. The American Southwest personifies the water crisis.”

The American Southwest: Are we running dry

Much of that message, relayed through interviews with congressional leaders and water czars throughout the Southwest, may be familiar to a Nevada audience: Less snow melt in the Rockies leads to less water in the Colorado River leads to less water to support an ever-growing number of residents across the region. As the film explores water challenges faced by Las Vegas and other western burgs, including Los Angeles, Palm Springs, and Albuquerque, two common themes emerge: We’ve overdeveloped our communities, and we take our water for granted.

Thebaut does examine an oft-overlooked population: Water shortages and water quality on Indian reservations is a particular problem. The documentary notes that reservation residents have to pull their vehicles up to a common pump and can take only 25 gallons of water a day. (We use more than 100 gallons per day ourselves.) “We’ve got Third World conditions in our country. If we’re going to have credibility in the rest of the world, we have to clean up our own backyard.”

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The American Southwest: Are We Running Dry?
Premieres on KLVX Channel 10 Tuesday, October 7 at 9 p.m.
Repeats Thursday, October 9 at 10 p.m.

While Las Vegas, which Thebaut calls “this amoeba,” comes in for a little finger-pointing—the camera flies over the Strip as we are reminded of our runaway growth—the Southern Nevada Water Authority is one of the film’s sponsors, and Thebaut counts its chief, Pat Mulroy, as a friend, so one wonders if the film pulled any punches. “Reuse and conservation are the center of the Las Vegas water strategy,” narrator Jane Seymour tells us, but there’s no discussion of the SNWA’s planned multibillion-dollar pipeline to rural Nevada to tap more water. Thebaut dismisses the notion that he looked the other way, saying that his film focused on the entire Southwest, not just Southern Nevada. “I think I presented the whole region. I don’t think I favored anybody or was overly critical.”

What Thebaut is calling for is a national water policy—an effort led by Washington to coordinate water conservation and usage across regions throughout the United States. “We have to plan—a paradigm shift—about how we do everything. How do we allocate water? We can’t look at it anymore in a piecemeal way.”

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